Spielberg review deft chronicling of an American cinematic giant

Susan Lacys HBO documentary unites the directors family, peers, critics and collaborators in an engaging look at his vast body of work

After nearly a half-century making films, Steven Spielbergs reputation is that of a populist rather than a subversive film-maker: a man whose body of work drove audiences to theaters more than it did defy artistic convention. Theres something unseemly about that, since Spielbergs crowning achievement his ability to give moviegoers what they wanted before they knew they wanted it was rooted in pushing the proverbial envelope.

Susan Lacys authorized HBO documentary is intent on revealing the true Spielberg, the artiste. To do so, shes assembled an impressively tenured Greek chorus of film-makers, actors, technicians and critics. There are appearances by the directors film-making peers: Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Plus commentary from the stars, producers and collaborators on many of his films (Tom Hanks, John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Daniel Day-Lewis, Harrison Ford et al). Theres even room for the critics whove both praised and pilloried his work, including Janet Maslin and AO Scott. The result is a panegyric thats at times too saintly but is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of Spielbergs career.

Lacy sketches the directors early life as a Jewish wunderkind from Phoenix, Arizona; the son of divorced parents (his mother Leah Adler was a homemaker, his formerly estranged father an engineer), who nearly abandoned his directorial ambitions after seeing Lawrence of Arabia as a teenager. (The film, as Spielberg explains, intimidated as much as it inspired him.)

But by the age of 20 he was directing Joan Crawford in Rod Serlings Night Gallery; then at 26, Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express, which Pauline Kael called phenomenal but said showed no sign of the emergence of a new film artist. At 30, Spielberg was cavorting with the movie brats Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese and Lucas who lavish their former fraternity brother with praise and chart his artistic growth, recounting the directors metamorphosis from boy wonder to box-office moneyspinner to eventual auteur. The kind of movie he had a sense for was also the kind of movie the audience had a sense for, Coppola notes.

Lacy, who previously directed PBSs American Masters series, does the same, in semi-chronological fashion, with most of the Spielberg oeuvre, from Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park and Schindlers List, for which the most time is reserved. Making Schindlers List made me reconcile with all the vainglorious reasons I hid from my Jewishness, says Spielberg. I avoided therapy because movies are my therapy.

She pays justifiably cursory attention to his less-loved films like Hook, Always, Amistad, The Terminal and Warhorse before pivoting towards the directors later work, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, both of which are contextualized as products of his growing interest in democracy and moral rectitude. By omitting some of Spielbergs lesser work, and its attendant criticisms, the film veers dangerously close to hagiography, but while other documentaries, like The Shark is Still Working and Spielberg: Steven On Set, have concerned themselves with smaller slices of his career, in Spielberg you never doubt that theres more than enough material to chew on, and justify the films considerable length it comes in at over two and a half hours.

Spielberg with Tom Hanks on the set of Saving Private Ryan. Photograph: HBO

Spielberg also zeroes in on accomplishments which were groundbreaking at the time though elementary today: the moving dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are compared to the advent of the talkies, the lesbian kiss in The Color Purple is rightfully critiqued for its tepidness, and the red coat in Schindlers List, the movies only burst of color, is hailed as a stroke of crimson genius.

The only real tension in the film is relegated to subtext. When Spielberg, in an interview from the 70s, is asked whether his crowd-pleasing films qualify as real art, he somewhat squeamishly notes the pretension in the very question. Lacy glosses over the directors complicated relationship with his father, too, which took shape in the filial unease of Close Encounters and the tales of torn, suburban families that appear in so much of his work.

Thats not to say Spielberg is all surface-level sycophancy. As a primer for those less familiar with his films a category as spare as those films are abundant it functions quite nicely. And as a history of the advancements of late-20th century American cinema, its also remarkably precise, even though it takes the work of just a single director as its subject.

But thats a testament to the mans outsize influence on film, one that cant be measured in profit or Oscars. Accordingly, Spielberg shows the extraordinary life of a cinephile turned director, whose work has left an indelible mark, one thats perhaps so entrenched that we often fail to notice it. As Dustin Hoffman says near the end of Lacys documentary, Steven Spielberg is like a guy who works with Steven Spielberg. That is to say: curious, learned and zealous, both humble student and consummate master.

  • Spielberg airs on Saturday 7 October on HBO in the US at 8pm EST, and on Sky Atlantic in the UK later this autumn.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/oct/06/spielberg-review-susan-lacy-deft-chronicling-of-an-american-cinematic-giant